Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Varekai, Cirque Du Soleil's Newest Production, Comes to the Bay Area
After a hiatus of one year, Cirque du Soleil with its great yellow and blue Grand Chapiteau has returned to the Bay Area for a run in San Francisco and later in San Jose. I have seen all 13 productions from the Quebec based "circus," since it inception in 1984. I have also seen their permanent productions of Mystere and O in Las Vegas. Varekai is not their best production; it ranks somewhere in the middle. It is hard to keep reinventing the production, and it is difficult to maintain the ever increasing level of excitement that the company first had several years ago. Even the thematic thread of Varekai is more vague than earlier productions. Many of the elements are not very well incorporated. That said, I still enjoyed the show with its hair rising acts.
Varekai (which means "whatever" in Romany language) has a very thin plot in which a young man named Icarus (played by Russian aerialist Anton Chelnokov) falls to Earth, loses his wings and is forced to wander through a surreal forest full of drifters and gypsies. He encounters a spirit of light named Olga (hand balancing contortionist Olga Pikhienko) and marries her. The end of the production is an amazing wedding scene, an explosion of sound and color that only the Cirque can provide. Unfortunately, we do not see much of handsome Anton or beautiful Olga in the production. However, during the 2 hour 30 minute production with a 20 minute intermission we see some dazzling acts.
The Atherton Brothers perform an amazing act called "Aerial Straps." They swing high above the audience suspended only by leather wrist bands, becoming one with each other and then hurtling into space. Octavio Alegria takes his juggling act one step further by using his hands, feet, head and even his mouth. The Tiny Water Meteor boys are interesting to watch as their swing chains are thrown in the air and then caught with their shoulders. The Russian dancers look like the Georgian dancers that have been appearing in Las Vegas shows for years. There is a tumbling act by a trio of Chinese boys who execute astonishing feats. Olga Pikhienko is wonderful doing her hand balancing on canes. What she does with her body contorting in all shapes is absolutely astonishing. Anton Cheinokov is Olga's male contortionist counterpart. He is breathtaking in his aerial twists and turns in a net high above the audience. The highlight of these wonders is the astonishing Russian men as the finale act in the production. These artists perform fantastic body swings, flying from fast swinging platforms to land on each other's shoulders, or hurling themselves into a canvas wall in the rear of the tent.
Varekai has it usual comic relief in the unimaginative clown routines of Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish. Claudio is a tall, thin mover who looks more like a host in a tony French restaurant, and his partner looks like a heavyset Baby Jane. There is one amusing bit when Claudio comes out to sing a typical romantic French song with a spotlight that keeps avoiding him, though it goes on much too long. He also does a silly magician act where everything goes wrong. The other comedian, John Gilkey, formerly of the Pickle Family Circus, rides a madcap bicycle of parallel giant wheels and makes strange sounds from a "sound machine."
Composer Violaine Corradi's musical score is uninspired. The klezmer-like bits are fun and there is a lovely waltz melody at the beginning of the second act. However, it is not up to par with past Cirque du Soleil productions. The lighting and the costumes as usual are superb. As circuses go, the Cirque is still the number one circus in the world.
Varekai is playing at Pacific Bell parking lot through December 22. For tickets call 800-678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. The production moves to San Jose on January 16, 2003, to the parking lot of the San Jose Water Company. Tickets are also on sale for the San Jose engagement at the same number.